The secret truth about what we wear to work

t-shirt with sneakersA friend of mine does keynote speaking. One of his topics is company culture and how it impacts an organisation’s ability to move quickly and adapt to disruptive forces. He recently did a gig which was one of many they planned with him around the country – a roadshow. After the first gig he was really pleased with how well it seemed to go. He got amazing feedback from the audience and people from within the company he was working for. But then something happened….

He was asked by a senior executive if he could wear ‘Business Attire’ at the next session. His initial response was, this is my business attire. [For context, he’s the kind of guy who wears jeans, a t-shirt, a nice jacket over the top of said t-shirt and runners – clean new ones.] Then the executive, said, I understand, but could you wear a suit to the next session. And this is what he said:

“I’ll do it if you change your logo.”

Wow, that took some courage. I’m not sure I would have had the guts to say that. But I can’t help but agree with his sentiments. What my friend said was totally on point. They hired him to help the organisation change, but then wanted him, to become them. It just doesn’t make any sense. After his jarring comment, the executive and my friend had an important discussion about how simple things like clothing can impact the way a company does things. And the executive to his credit, understood the importance of ‘uniforms’ and culture.

We all wear uniforms to work, even when we are not in the Army. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s overt, but it always says much about hierarchy and whether we follow rules. The stricter the uniform, the stronger the hierarchy. Organisations with an informal, yet ‘expected uniform’ have less freeform thinking, and a culture of rule followers. Just take a look around this week at what people wear – from McDonalds, to bank tellers, to politicians, to creative types and you’ll see their culture on display.

We can use our uniform to immediate advantage. Often the decision is as simple as do we want to fit in this time, or stand out on purpose?

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.